Realizing Rights of Nature: Sustaining Development and Democracy

Our project, Realizing Rights of Nature: Sustaining Development and Democracy, is part of the effort to examine issues relevant to the UN’s global sustainable development goals identified in Agenda 2030. Our research project particularly focuses on the actions of a growing number of jurisdictions over the past decade and a half to grant rights to nature. States have adopted laws, local municipalities have adopted local ordinances, and courts in various countries have ruled in favor of nature for its own benefit. Our project explores the potential challenges, politics, and resistance to conceiving and implementing such Rights of Nature (RoN) initiatives. Despite the seeming novelty of these initiatives, we place RoN within the longer history of the expansion of rights and the creation of new legal subjects which has characterized the “rights revolution” that began in the mid-20th century. We will analyse four potential tensions that will help to define the relationship of liberalism to the practice of recognizing the rights and political agency of non-humans. The first is the tension between RoN and property rights. The second is the tension between RoN and human rights. The third is the tension between individual and collective rights that RoN highlights. The fourth is the ability of democratic institutions, which claim legitimacy due to popular sovereignty and the protection of human freedom, to accommodate non-human legal subjects. We will show how RoN may require liberal societies to directly confront these questions.

Since at least the 1870s the Maori who lived along the Whanganui (the Whanganui iwi) sought to have the Crown government legally recognize and respect their relationship and claims to the Whanganui River. Their relationship was recognized by the state in 2017. As part of the 2017 legislation, known as the Te Awa Tupua Bill, the Whanganui River was recognized as a legal entity with rights and responsibilities. It is owned by itself. A representative appointed by the Whanganui iwi and a representative appointed by the government are jointly given the responsibility of representing the river. The Whangaui River as pictured in a set of postcards titled “Our glorious empire,” published between the 1930s and 1940s. Image author: Godfrey Phillips (NZ) Ltd. See: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wanganui_River,_Pipiriki.jpg

About the project

Duration: 2020-2024

Realizing Rights of Nature: Sustaining Development and Democracy is funded by Formas, the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development.

Project Publications:

Seth Epstein, "Rights of nature, human species identity, and political thought in the anthropocene," The Anthropocene Review (May 2022): 1-19. DOI:10.1177/20530196221078929

Seth Epstein, Marianne Dahlén, Victoria Enkvist, and Elin Boyer, "Liberalism and Rights of Nature: A Comparative Legal and Historical Perspective," Law, Culture and the Humanities (June 2022): 1-23. DOI:10.1177/17438721211065735

Project Researchers and Affiliates

Project Researchers:

Marianne Dahlén, Universitetslektor i rättshistoria vid Juridiska institutionen, Professorer, lärare, forskare

Victoria Enkvist, Universitetslektor vid Juridiska institutionen, Professorer, lärare, forskare

Seth Epstein, forskare vid Centrum för mångvetenskaplig forskning om religion och samhälle (CRS)

Project Affiliates:

Elin Boyer, Doktarand vid Centrum för forskning vid Juridiska fakulteten

News

Higher Seminar in Public Law, Faculty of Law, Uppsala University

"Empowering nature? A multi-disciplinary approach"

This seminar serves as an introduction to our project, which examines the implications for democratic participation and political institutions of contemporary efforts to recognize nature and natural features as rights-bearing legal subjects. We will do so by comparing these efforts with the historical recognition of other legal subjects, whose acknowledgment widened the circle of civic membership. For our seminar we are circulating a draft of the project’s first article, which explains our ideas in greater detail, and are looking forward to getting feedback on the draft and discussing future directions for the project.

22 April 2021, 13:15-15:00, on Zoom

Register for the seminar to amanuensis ronja.osterud@jur.uu.se by April 16 at the latest. The article for the seminar will be distributed upon registration.

This image, from the 17th century book Atalanta Fugiens, illustrates that although conceiving of nature as a subject is not new, doing so has often privileged an anthropomorphic perspective. The title of the image, “Nutrix Ejus Terra Est,” means “His nurse is the earth.” Maier, Michael. “Emblema II. Nutrix Ejus Terra Est.” In Atalanta Fugiens. Oppenheim, Germany: Johann-Theodor de Bry, 1618. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/6t053g89c.
Last modified: 2022-06-27